Labels. You learn from them that packaged foods you buy have certain amounts of calories, fat and sugar. You depend on them for meal planning, portion control and general nutrition. But you cannot count on food labels to tell you whether the item contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are created in a laboratory, where various genetic material from other organisms, including bacteria, can be inserted into food in a way that never would have occurred in nature. The debate continues about their long-term safety as well as the increased amount of herbicides required to grow GMO crops.
A proposed federal law would strip states’ rights to require GMO labeling and instead make all such labeling voluntary. The most recent version of this law has been introduced in the U.S. Senate’s agriculture committee. It is similar to a measure the U.S. House passed in 2015 called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.
Critics are concerned that if this legislation becomes law, consumers will lose their right to know what is in their food. Consumer watchdogs are so concerned about this legislation that they renamed it the DARK Act to indicate the lack of information it provides.
TriplePundit asked the chairman of the Just Label It initiative and founder of organic dairy company Stonyfield Farm to explain why the DARK Act looms so large in the food debate these days. Here’s what Gary Hirshberg had to say:
TriplePundit: The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act sounds like a great thing for consumers. Why is this dubbed the DARK Act instead by opponents?
Gary Hirshberg: The name of the bill is intentionally misleading. The reason those of us who support mandatory GMO labeling have dubbed the bill the Deny Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act, is because it would prevent states from requiring packaged food with genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such while also barring the Food and Drug Administration from doing so. It would keep American consumers in the dark about whether their food contains genetically engineered ingredients.
TriplePundit: Is there potentially a modified version of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act that could protect consumers on the federal level?
GH: The only federal alternative to the DARK Act would be a bill that requires clear, on-package GMO labeling. We have been, and continue to be, willing to work with industry to determine the best way to formulate that label so that they feel it presents the information in a non-judgmental manner that is easy to implement, but high-tech solutions, state preemption or voluntary labels are not the answer. Sen. Jeff Merkley is introducing a bill that we could support.
TriplePundit: Some states like Vermont already plan to enact labeling laws for food with genetically modified organisms. How could a new federal law like the DARK Act threaten what states are already doing to inform consumers about their food?
GH: There is long-standing precedent for states to determine their own food labeling practices beyond the federally regulated Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list. States already require state-specific food labels for everything from “cottage foods” to butter and cheese grading. Yet, the DARK Act would wipe away Vermont’s law to require GMO labeling — and the laws of other states that have passed or are considering passing labeling mandates modeled after the other laws that are already in the books. There are even some implications of the bill that could impact the way states regulate how GMO crops are grown.
TriplePundit: You have explained previously that mandatory labeling of GMOs in food does not necessarily have to signal a safety issue, simply a piece of information the consumer has a right to know. If big food companies believe there is no consumer safety issue, why so much opposition to mandatory labeling?
GH: That’s a great question and one that frankly puzzles me. As a business owner, I am proud of the products my company makes and value transparency. The fact that Big Food is fighting so hard against mandatory labeling — when nearly 90 percent of Americans regardless of age, party or gender say they want the right to know — begs the question: What are they trying to hide?
Sixty-four countries around the world require mandatory labeling of GMOs. Why shouldn’t Americans have the same access to information about how their food is grown and produced?
TriplePundit: You created a brand that uses the USDA Organic seal to assure consumers there are no GMOs in Stonyfield products. For those foods that are not certified organic, could state laws do enough to help consumers sort through GMO and non-GMO choices?
GH: States laws, like the one in Vermont, are aiming to clear up confusion in the marketplace. For example, a recent poll showed that many consumers don’t realize certified organic products don’t contain GMOs and others mistakenly believe that products labeled “natural” are GMO free. “Natural,” as you may know, has no clearly defined meaning on food packaging. A mandatory label that indicates the presence of GMOs will help to clear up that confusion caused by the current voluntary system.
Learn more about consumer protection efforts to get GMOs labeled at Just Label It.
Image courtesy US Department of Agriculture